The Smithsonian National Zoo’s beloved giant pandas began their trek back to China on Nov. 8 after 23 years in the U.S. The pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, were on loan for a research and breeding program and in 2020 gave birth to a baby named Xiao Qi Ji, who is also heading to China.

Ahead of the pandas’ farewell to the zoo, the Smithsonian said in a news release that forklifts will be used to move each of them into FedEx trucks. The trucks will transport them to Dulles International Airport, but they will not be visible as they are moved onto the “FedEx Panda Express” – a Boeing 777F aircraft with a custom decal.

Their estimated departure from the airport is slated for 1 p.m.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian came to the zoo in 2000 as part of an agreement between the zoo and China Wildlife and Conservation Association and were supposed to stay for just 10 years, but the agreement was extended several times. The agreement was set to expire on Dec. 7, 2023.

The National Zoo first received pandas from China in 1972 in an effort to save the species by breeding them. The zoo has had panda couples ever since.

During her time in D.C., Mei Xiang has given birth to seven cubs – three who died before adulthood and three who have already been returned to China. Per the agreement, the baby pandas are returned by age 4.

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